The Girl with the Limp - contd
by Sunanda Chatterjee
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When he took a break to go the bathroom, I had no choice but to look up. I’m ashamed to admit that I said, “We don’t need you anymore. Why don’t you just go home?”
Missing her older daughter probably made Mrs. Deo realize Jyoti’s value, and soon she began to teach her cooking and cleaning. We saw less and less of Jyoti, as she took up jobs around the neighborhood.
A year later, Mrs. Deo retired and they moved out into the servants’ quarters of another officer’s house where Jyoti worked.
My mother finally got someone who’d clean the house to her specifications.
Years later, when I was in college in Mumbai, I got a letter from my mother:
“…Your father and I went to the hospital to see our neighbor Mr. Gill who was admitted with pneumonia. Guess whom we saw in the hallway? Mrs. Deo was there, crying her eyes out. Apparently Divya, who, by the way, has two children, a boy, 5, and a girl, 1, is admitted. You won’t believe what she told me. Divya’s brother-in-law, yes, the one who didn’t want to marry Jyoti, always harassed Divya about the dowry she family hadn’t given. And about how much she and her children eat! Divya isn’t tailoring much because of her little girl. Divya told him many times that if she was such a burden, she’d kill herself. Two days ago he said, “You are always threatening to kill yourself, so why don’t you?” Divya was very upset, and poured kerosene on herself. Her husband didn’t say anything, but her brother-in-law gave her matches! She lit a match and was on flames, when the children started shouting and some neighbors brought her here to the hospital. The police are asking her if it’s a case of bride-burning by the in-laws, but Divya said no. She worries what will happen to her children if her husband goes to jail. So she said it was an accident…”
I was shocked. Poor Divya was dead. Bride-burning for dowry was something you read in the newspapers, something that happened to other people, not those you knew!
Divya died in the hospital of eighty percent burns, leaving behind two young children. Her husband Aditya came to visit Mrs. Deo after cremating his wife’s body.
“I’m sorry for everything. What am I going to do with the kids? Please let me marry your daughter Jyoti.”
Mrs. Deo was hesitant.
He wept. “Look at her limp! Who will marry her? What will happen to her after you die? Think about your grandchildren!”
Everyone in the neighborhood, including Mrs. Bapat and my mother told Mrs. Deo not to agree, but Mrs. Deo said, “Aditya promised me he’ll take care of Jyoti. I don’t know how long I’ll live.
This is for the best.”
My mother told me Aditya moved with Jyoti and the children to Mumbai, where he set up a frozen foods business.
Traveling by the local train in the busy metropolis of Mumbai, I used to look at the fellow passengers, hoping to see a familiar face.
I wonder what I’d say if I ever met Jyoti in person. I’d thought of several options.
I’m sorry I didn’t let you play carrom with me that day; I already had a player.
I hope Aditya is a good to you.
Do your nephew and niece call you Aunt, or Mother?
But the winner would surely be:
I’m glad you’re still alive.
Hearing a noise from upstairs, I was jolted back to reality.
“Sorry, I’m late,” said a woman, about my age, coming down the spiral staircase, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. A faint fragrance of sandalwood incense sticks lingered on her person. I stared at her face. It was still beautiful.
She wore orthopedic boots, and there was only the slightest hint of a limp. She seemed harried but self-assured. I gawked at her as she shook my hand.
She stared at me just a second too long, before leading me into the family room. “We are planning to decorate the whole house. We’d like to hear some ideas.”
I swallowed hard. “I’ve brought my portfolio with me,” I said. “My company has many ideas, but would like to first hear what the client wants. We’ve decorated many homes in San Gabriel Valley, with ethnic themes. We follow Indian Vastu and Chinese Feng Shui. I hope you’ll like our work.”
She nodded, and asked to see the pictures of other homes.
I opened my portfolio eagerly, hoping she hadn’t recognized me.
Me, an officer’s child, the top student in my school, who went to college, and came to America, who was independent, strong, smart, and was working in a niche Interior Designer’s office.
And Jyoti, an illiterate limp girl, whose mother had begged my mother for a job. Who used to live in my servants’ quarters, who was married to the man whose family killed her sister. She was now looking after their children and his fast food empire.
My journey from the little town in central India had brought me to America, as had hers.
We had much in common. We had much to discuss.
But instead of telling her I remembered our carrom games, I was hoping she wouldn’t recognize me.
And instead of telling her I was glad she was still alive, I was begging for a job.
After going through my portfolio, she selected some designs and we chatted about where to buy ethnic lamp-shades and wall hangings.
I was hired!
Later, as I was leaving, Jyoti said, “Come over anytime to play carrom.” ***